How to Become an APRN

June 20, 2022 · 6 Min Read

Reviewed by Elizabeth Clarke

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Review the role of an advanced practice registered nurse, the steps needed for licensure and certification, and the opportunities available for those who pursue this advanced nursing role.

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How to Become an APRN
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Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) are nursing professionals who have specialized education toward a certain population. Whether in primary or acute care or working with younger or older patients, APRNs have many options available.

Explore this guide for an overview of the educational requirements, specializations, licensure and certification qualifications, and career outlook for APRNs.

What Is an APRN?

APRNs are nurses who specialize in a certain area of patient care. Specialties include certified nurse midwife (CNM), certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA), nurse practitioner (NP), and clinical nurse specialist (CNS). These offer a wide range of APRN career options.

To become licensed within one of these areas, nurses must complete both undergraduate and graduate coursework, whether a master's degree in nursing or doctorate.

Regardless of their specialty, the main responsibilities of an APRN include treating and diagnosing illnesses, providing education on various health issues, helping patients and their families understand how to manage diseases, and staying up to date on the latest treatments and medical conditions.

As an APRN, nurses have a certain level of autonomy depending on the state they practice. Laws in full-practice states allow APRNs to diagnose, treat, and prescribe medication without physician oversight. Those in reduced-access states require physician oversight when prescribing medication. Restricted-access states require complete physician oversight.

Steps to Becoming an APRN

Before becoming an APRN, nurses need to fulfill certain requirements. These include earning an undergraduate and graduate degree, passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) and other necessary certification exams, and gaining clinical experience.

While specific criteria regarding licensure and experience may differ depending on location and school, the basic requirements remain similar.

Nurses must earn a BSN before enrolling in a graduate program. Students who attend class full time can earn their BSN in four years.

While registered nurses (RN) with an associate degree in nursing (ADN) can become APRNs, they would first need to enroll in an RN-to-BSN degree program. This will allow them to earn their bachelor's in two years rather than four.

Prospective nurses with a bachelor's degree in a non-nursing field can enroll in an accelerated BSN program, which will allow them to earn their nursing degree in as little as a year.

The NCLEX-RN assesses a nurse's ability to apply their knowledge and analyze scenarios rather than simply recalling information.

The exam is based on patients' needs and is broken down into four categories: safety and effective care environment, health promotion and maintenance, psychosocial integrity, and physiological integrity.

Most APRN graduate programs require applicants to have at least 1-2 years of clinical experience. However, some programs do not require this experience.

The experience needed to become an APRN varies depending on the institution and the applicant's educational background. It also depends on the specialty they want to pursue.

To become an APRN, RNs can either pursue a master of science in nursing (MSN), which typically takes two years to complete, or a doctor of nursing practice (DNP), which can take 2-4 years to complete.

Nurses with an ADN can pursue an MSN bridge program, allowing them to earn their MSN in less time than it would take pursuing a BSN and an MSN individually.

Prospective APRNs with a bachelor's degree in a non-nursing field can enroll in a direct-entry MSN program and earn their master's degree in 18-36 months.

To become certified as an APRN, nurses must pass a national certification exam based on their specialty. Nurses can choose from one of four tracks: CNM, CRNA, CNS, or NP.

After passing the appropriate APRN exam, nurses can then apply for their license in the state they wish to practice. While every state requires certification before becoming licensed, some of the other requirements may vary from one state to the next.

Featured Online RN-to-BSN in Nursing Programs

APRN Education

Becoming an APRN requires nurses to earn an advanced education. This means earning a BSN and an MSN or a DNP. An MSN is the minimum degree requirement to become a certified and licensed APRN.

Earning a BSN and an MSN typically takes six years of schooling for full-time students. Pursuing a DNP adds 2-3 years. This does not include the time to build the experience needed to enroll in an APRN program, which is usually another 1-2 years.

RNs with an ADN can enroll in anRN-MSN nursing bridge program that allows them to earn their MSN without spending four years earning a BSN. Prospective APRNs with a bachelor's degree in a non-nursing field can enroll in a direct-entry program and earn their MSN in 18-36 months.

Nurses who choose a direct-entry pathway can expect to complete the BSN curriculum within their first year, allowing them to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam to become a licensed registered nurse. The second half of the program is dedicated to the MSN curriculum, including clinicals.

MSN Degree

An MSN is the minimum degree needed to become an APRN. Applicants must complete an accredited BSN program and have a certain amount of clinical experience. Within an MSN-APRN program, students pursue one of four nurse specialties: CNM, CRNA, CNS, or NP.

BSN; minimum 3.0 GPA; active RN license; one year or more of clinical experience

Epidemiology; nursing ethics; pharmacology; pathophysiology; health assessment; specialty-based courses

18-36 months (for full-time students with a BSN)

Diagnose illnesses; prescribe medication; order, complete, and analyze tests; communicate with patients and colleagues; work collaboratively; practice in a clinical setting

DNP Degree

Instead of pursuing an MSN, prospective APRNs can enroll in a doctoral program to earn a DNP. While MSN and DNP programs are somewhat similar, DNP graduates can have higher earning potential with increased responsibility and an expanded nursing leadership role.

Nurses should expect to spend an extra 2-3 years if they pursue a DNP. A DNP is also the minimum degree required to become a CRNA.

BSN; minimum 3.0 GPA; active RN license; one year or more of clinical experience

Biostatistics; pathophysiology/physiology; research- and evidence-based practice; clinical pharmacology; project planning and proposal development; management and data analysis; healthcare policy; specialty-based courses

3-4 years

Practice as independent practitioners; use evidenced-based care; carry out new strategies and policies; develop healthcare research projects

APRN Licensure and Certification

To get a license as an APRN, nurses must earn a BSN, pass the NCLEX, and become a licensed RN before applying to a graduate program.

Once they have their RN license, they need to complete either an MSN or a DNP program and pass a national certification exam related to their chosen specialty. These are the minimum requirements to be eligible for an APRN license.

While specific APRN licensing criteria can vary from state to state, most require the nurse to pass a national certification exam. There are various certification boards that provide exams to become certified as a CNM, CNS, CRNA, or an NP.

Once licensed and certified, nurses are required to renew both their RN and APRN licenses over the course of their employment. Although each state's renewal requirements vary, most need a certain number of clinical and/or continuing education hours.

An RN license must typically be renewed every two years, while an APRN license is renewed on an annual or biannual basis depending on the state in which the nurse practices. Check each state's licensing board for specific deadlines and requirements.

Types of APRN Certification Boards

Nurses have options when looking to earn their APRN certification. Each of these organizations prepares exams that focus on a certain APRN specialty. They provide an overview of the exams along with study materials.

While not exhaustive, the following organizations provide nurses with certification options.

The American Nurses Credentialing Center: The ANCC is the largest certification board for APRNs providing certification, mostly for NPs. The ANCC offers the following certifications:

  • Family nurse practitioner
  • Adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner
  • Adult-gerontology primary acute nurse practitioner
  • Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner
  • Adult-gerontology clinical nurse specialist

The American Association of Nurse Practitioners

The AANP is the second largest certification board for APRNs.They currently offer three certification exams in some of the most popular nurse practitioner specialties. These include family nurse practitioner, adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner, and emergency nurse practitioner.

The American Midwifery Certification Board

The NBCRNA offers initial certification for APRNs who specialize in anesthesiology. CRNAs must complete 100 continuing education credits and complete four modules every four years to renew their license.

The American Midwifery Certification Board

CNMs earn their certification from the AMCB after earning an MSN or a DNP from an accredited nurse midwifery program and passing the certification exam. To renew their certification, nurses must complete three AMCB modules and 20 contact hours every five years.

The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses

The AACN offers several acute care certifications for clinical nurse specialists and NPs. To renew, AACN requires nurses to complete 100 clinical education credits and 432 hours in direct care.

AACN offers the following certifications:

  • Acute Care Clinical Nurse Specialist
  • Adult-gerontology
  • Pediatric
  • Neonatal
  • Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
  • Adult-gerontology
  • Adult
  • Critical Care Clinical Nurse Specialist
  • Adult
  • Pediatric
  • Neonatal

Working as an APRN

The autonomy of an APRN can differ from one location to the next. Independent or supervised practice is mandated by the state in which the APRN works.

For NPs, states allow for either full-practice, reduced-access, or restricted-access NP authority. Full practice allows NPs to diagnose, treat, and prescribe medication without physician oversight. Reduced access requires physician oversight to prescribe medication. Restricted access requires physician oversight to diagnose, treat, and prescribe medication.

While working as an APRN, nurses can benefit from a high earning potential, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) reporting that CRNAs earn a median $195,610 per year, NPs earn $120,680 per year, and CNMs earn $112,830 per year. The BLS also projects a 45% increase in the employment of APRNs from 2020-2030, which is higher than the average 8% growth rate for all other occupations.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming an APRN


Is becoming an APRN worth it?

Becoming an APRN can be a worthwhile investment in a nurse's career. According to the BLS, APRNs earn a median salary that is 46% higher than the salary of RNs. APRNs will also benefit from demand, as there is projected to be a 45% increase in employment over the next decade.

What is the highest-paid APRN?

According to the BLS, CRNAs are the highest-paid APRNs, earning an average annual salary of $195,610, which is around $75,000 more than NPs and over $80,000 more than CNMs.

How long does it take to become an APRN?

When following the traditional path, becoming an APRN can take 7-8 years, with an additional two years for those pursuing a DNP rather than an MSN.

  • BSN: Four years
  • Clinical experience: 1-2 years
  • MSN: 18-26 months or DNP: 3-6 years

Can you become an APRN while working as a nurse?

Yes, it is possible to become an APRN while working as a nurse. However, it will increase the time needed to complete the required degress, as nurses will have to split their time between work and school.


Page last reviewed June 12, 2022


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